Practice Guide #4: Roles for Local Government in Strengthening Social Connectedness and Resilience Activities in Multi-unit Housing

Fourth in a series of four guides from Hey Neighbour Collective about strategies and practices to increase neighbour-to-neighbour connections and social resilience among residents living in multi-unit housing.

Social connectedness has been demonstrated to strengthen health, well-being, and individual and collective resilience. Meanwhile, multi-unit housing such as apartments and condominiums are becoming a prominent form of housing in many fast-growing urban areas. So, what are the best approaches for helping nurture and strengthen neighbourly social connections in these spaces, and what kinds of benefits can result?

These practice guides are written specifically for residents, landlords, housing operators, non-profit organizations, and municipal governments. The guides summarize Hey Neighbour Collective’s key learnings about the vital roles that each of these groups can play in fostering neighbour-to-neighbour connectedness and social resilience in multi-unit housing. The guides also point to the top tips, tactics, and strategic approaches, and describe the most common benefits that emerge for everyone involved.

Find and download the practice guides in this series. Find all five of the recent practice guides on our resources page.

Practice Guide #4: Roles for Local Government in Strengthening Social Connectedness and Resilience Activities in Multi-unit Housing

When a city’s residents are less lonely and socially isolated, municipal governments benefit. Connected residents tend to be more resilient to crises and less reliant on first responders, for example, and a stronger sense of collective community can lead to improved civic engagement and reduced crime. But what are the best roles that local governments can play in fostering social connectedness among residents in multi-unit housing? In this guide, staff from local governments in Vancouver, Victoria, and New Westminster, along with their community and resident collaborators, discuss why they became involved in helping build social connections, what they’ve done, and what they’ve learned.

Partners acknowledgment

This learning report would not be possible without all of the Collective’s many partners including our Community of Practice, Research team members, and Learning Network Collaborators. Our thanks goes out to all of these partners who share the Collective’s concern about rising loneliness and social isolation and see a role for the housing, health and urban planning sectors to collaborate on solutions.

The value of social connection

Social isolation has been linked with negative impacts on life satisfaction, safety, health, and emotional well-being. Conversely, social connectedness has been demonstrated to strengthen health, well-being, and individual and collective resilience.

Multi-unit housing such as apartments and condominiums are becoming the dominant form of housing in many urban centres. Often, for a variety of intersecting reasons, people living in multi-unit housing tend to know their neighbours less than people in single family dwellings. However, this can be seen as an opportunity rather than as a problem: There are many examples in BC and around the world of residents in multi-unit housing finding ways to increase their social connectedness — starting with connections to each other.

Building design, amenity areas, and duration, stability, and affordability of residency, alongside programming activities led by residents or building operators can help or hinder the fostering of friendly social connections.

Connected neighbours often feel a greater sense of safety and belonging and are more likely to assist each other through difficulties and emergencies. There are also many benefits for housing operators, governments, and community organizations when residents of multi-unit housing are more connected and mutually supportive.

Neighbourliness doesn’t just “automatically happen,” though. Social connectedness between neighbours improves dramatically when it’s intentionally nurtured — and that’s what these guides are all about.

Read more about the links between loneliness, social isolation and well-being.

Rising policy attention on loneliness and social isolation

With mounting awareness about the negative impacts of social isolation, many national, regional, and local governments around the world have become increasingly concerned and are taking action to address these concerns. Canadian governments, too, are beginning to recognize the seriousness of the issue.

For example, in the 2020 report From Risk to Resilience: An Equity Approach to COVID-19, Canada’s chief public health officer pointed to the “harnessing of social cohesion” as a key action area to prepare for, respond to, and recover from the pandemic in an equitable way. And the federal government has begun funding research into

growing feelings of disconnection, isolation and loneliness in Canadian society.” Meanwhile, provincial governments, who are primary funders of provincial health systems, confronted the enormous downstream health impacts of loneliness and social isolation during the pandemic.

Similarly, regional and local governments in British Columbia, witnessing the ongoing, frontline impacts of the pandemic and climate crises are recognizing the urgent need for greater social connectedness, cohesion and community-based systems of mutual support to supplement their own limited resources.

This goal is embodied in Metro Vancouver’s 2050 Regional Growth Strategy (PDF), which calls for its twenty-one member municipalities to adopt Regional Context Statements that “identify policies and actions that contribute [toward] increased social connectedness in multi-unit housing.” The Strategy also acknowledges the importance of bringing equity-based approaches that help address disproportionate impacts of social isolation on particular demographic groups.

Some of the impacts of greater community social connectedness that result in direct benefits for governments are clear. For example, residents become less reliant on first responders when they are more resilient to everyday challenges and crises and more prepared for emergencies. In addition, a stronger, more widely experienced sense of community belonging can lead to less crime and higher rates of civic engagement.

What can local governments do?

There are many ways that local governments can support equitable, socially connected communities.

Many local governments include references to issues surrounding loneliness, isolation, social cohesion, community, belonging, and neighbourhood connections in some of their policy statements and strategies; however, simply setting a general policy direction, while essential, is usually not enough in itself to bring about change.

Local governments play a key role in influencing the design of neighbourhoods and new residential buildings, and have many tools available to activate best practices in designing for social connectedness. Land use and housing policies, housing-design guidelines, and planning for social infrastructure and community amenities are just a few of the approaches that can be taken. These types of approaches have been extensively studied and developed, such as in the work done by Happy Cities through their Happy Homes initiative.

Beyond influencing designs and physical infrastructure, then, how else can local governments help foster greater social connectedness in communities, and particularly in multi-unit housing? In fact, there are many practical, relatively low-cost approaches to supporting “social programming” and related activities that lead directly to greater social connectedness among community members.

The Hey Neighbour Collective (HNC) submitted a discussion paper to the Metro 2050 Regional Growth Strategy consultations, “Developing Truly Complete Communities: Social equity, social connectedness, and multi-unit housing in an age of public health and climate crises.”

HNC stated, “We believe that the Metro 2050 update should take advantage of this opportunity to update planning goals to align with the principle of social equity. Working towards greater neighbourhood-based social connectedness for our region without a grounding in social equity approaches would be fundamentally incomplete.”

To support more equitable, socially connected housing, HNC recommended that municipal/local governments should commit to efforts to:

  • Enable residents to stay in their communities 
  • Encourage social connectedness co-benefits in housing upgrade programs 
  • Develop design guidelines and incentives for multi-unit housing that foster social connections amongst neighbours
  • Provide funding, advocate to senior levels of government for funding, and support external partners’ funding proposals.
  • Prioritize underserved neighbourhoods for social infrastructure 
  • Track and report on social connectedness 

Examples of municipal government supported social connectedness programs

Enabling residents to lead as part of the City of Vancouver’s commitment to a healthier city

The percentage of residents living in multi-unit housing within the City of Vancouver has increased significantly in recent years. At the same time, for a variety of reasons, residents in multi-housing tend to have lower incomes and report higher levels of social isolation. The city is in a major earthquake and tsunami zone and the area is increasingly experiencing impacts of climate change such as heatwaves and flooding. All of this has added up to a strong, consistent interest on the part of the local government to encourage increasing social connections among residents to potentially help better prepare for and mitigate these risks and impacts.

With input from many sectors — and other government agencies, such as the regional health authority — cultivating social connectedness was incorporated as one of the 12 primary goals in Vancouver’s Healthy City Strategy.

Social planner Keltie Craig acted as the local government lead on the “Cultivating Connections” goal. Recognizing the inter-departmental nature and benefits of improved connections, Craig worked to build staff support among other City departments through emphasizing how more robust neighbourly social relationships can improve residents’ emergency preparedness, climate resilience, health outcomes, waste reduction, and more. Craig believes building a network of internal champions of this kind is key, because local governments often don’t have existing expertise or budgets for social connectedness work.

“I think that’s often how innovation happens within the public sector, It does take someone trying to go above and beyond the norm in order for some sort of change or new ideas to percolate to the surface.”

Keltie Craig Social Planner, City of Vancouver

With a successful application for a PlanH Social Connectedness grant from BC Healthy Communities and the provincial Ministry of Health, Craig leveraged the grant into more funding and more robust City involvement.

Craig hired a program coordinator and they were soon able to launch a Hey Neighbour! pilot program in two multi-unit rental buildings. Through this pilot, they tested a resident-led “animator” approach to strengthening neighbourly connections in the participating buildings. With the support of their building managers and the City coordinator, volunteer resident animators facilitated different social activities such as an outdoor movie night, emergency preparedness workshop, lemonade stand, cooking class, games night, and other events.

Craig also started liaising with other organizations and companies that were doing similar work on strengthening social connectedness in multi-unit housing, and an informal community of practice began to emerge among them—a group that would eventually coalesce into the Hey Neighbour Collective.

In retrospect, Craig suggested that one of the most effective and feasible roles for municipal governments in fostering social connectedness programming is to help interested landlords, housing operators, residents, or non-profits unlock bureaucratic obstacles to doing social animation work themselves. Municipalities can help to create enabling environments through actions such as allowing for temporary street closures or for parks to be used for multi-unit resident parties, or they can support residents to access small grants or equipment for social events. A recipe book with tips for resident animators emerged from the Hey Neighbour pilot — comparing and sharing these types of resources can help support community leadership in building connections.

A community garden with bright red tomatoes growing on the vine.

The City of Victoria teams up to help deliver connect & prepare

Victoria, situated on Vancouver Island, is in an earthquake and tsunami zone and, like many other communities, is also actively preparing for the impacts of climate change, such as increasing extreme heat events. VictoriaReady, the City of Victoria’s Emergency Management Division, was well aware of the extensive research showing that people’s social connections play vital roles in strengthening their preparation for and responses to emergencies. And they knew that the residents who are both most vulnerable to emergencies and least socially connected tend to be those living in multi-unit housing.

So when Building Resilient Neighbourhoods (BRN) approached VictoriaReady about teaming up to co-deliver Connect & Prepare, City staff welcomed the opportunity.

Connect & Prepare is a series of facilitated workshops in which neighbours learn about preparedness for acute emergencies, and the value of social connections in strengthening long-term resilience, and then plan and collaborate on shared projects together.

VictoriaReady provided emergency preparedness expertise for the workshops along with staff support for related outreach, promotion, content development, and communications activities. The City also provided funding to purchase shared emergency supplies for participating groups of neighbours.

“Connect & Prepare has been a very successful program,” said Tanya Patterson, Emergency Program Coordinator at VictoriaReady. The City provided significant resources and staff time to co-deliver the program, but was also able to leverage these contributions. “We were fortunate to be able to extend our own capacity and effectiveness in reaching residents by partnering with a non-governmental organization that brought complementary skills to the table.”

As of 2022-23, three other BC municipalities have sponsored a “scaling pilot” of Connect & Prepare in their communities, with each local government contributing in different ways — with funding assistance, staff time for co-delivery, and/or contributions of other supports or resources.

“VictoriaReady’s dedicated support and creative involvement was invaluable to launching Connect & Prepare,” said Stacy Barter, executive director of BRN. “And now, it’s immensely rewarding and exciting that other municipal governments and community organizations are pitching in to deliver and develop the program further.”

How the City of New Westminster is leveraging partnerships

In rapidly densifying New Westminster, the majority of new homes are multi-unit housing with significant proportions of residents who are older adults, living with disability, or lower-income renters. Because of this, the municipal government has started collaborating with community organizations and residents with lived experience, to develop strategies for fostering greater social connections in multi-unit housing.

One example is the City’s active involvement in the Digital Inclusion Project, which leverages relationships between many community partners to support at-risk and vulnerable populations, including older adults, to obtain computer equipment and learn skills for online access and connecting with other people, services, and community groups.

In addition, the City has begun partnering with Hey Neighbour Collective (HNC) and the Seniors Services Society of BC (SSSBC) at Ross Tower, a BC Housing-operated building that is home to a high proportion of frail and live-alone seniors with low levels of social connectedness.

Through this partnership, the City of New Westminster has funded a social connectedness component of SSSBC’s outreach and support work, and contributed staff time and practical resources, such as equipment for outdoor community-building events.

The City’s Emergency Management division is also a key partner in helping SSSBC deliver the Connect & Prepare program at Ross Tower. This builds on Emergency Management’s recently adopted community development approach to emergency preparedness that’s been heightened in the wake of recent pandemic and extreme heat events .

“The City of New Westminster has shown innovative, courageous leadership, and our resulting partnership has allowed us to elevate and solidify our approach to building social connections and community in multi-unit housing.”

Kyoko Takahashi, Program Manager at SSSBC

According to City social planner Anur Mehdic, the success of these efforts is also partly the result of the social planning department embracing a collaborative leadership role across other local government departments

“It’s essential to have a committed champion, or a champion department, that communicates with other departments,” said Anur Mehdic. “Time and funding are also needed to build relationships internally and externally, to achieve intra-governmental buy-in, and develop solid partnerships with NGOs and residents with lived experience.”

City of Vancouver high density multi-unit housing with mountains in the background.

Summary: Key steps and actions local governments can take to help foster social connection-building activities

Key steps towards municipal government supportive action for social connectedness programming in multi-unit housing

  • Target funding to research or partner with research institutions to better understand the impacts of loneliness and social isolation in the community, and to evaluate impacts of programs over time.
  • Identify the links between community building, social connectedness, resilience and other municipal policy priorities.
  • Develop clear, compelling messaging about what the benefits are, or can be, for other municipal departments to support social connectedness programming.
  • Be willing to be flexible, creative, and innovative.
  • Provide staff, part-time or full-time, to support, develop, and champion local government action.
  • Create program budgets and allow sufficient time for staff champions to build relationships internally and externally.
  • Act as a convener and nurture  internal cross-departmental collaboration, as well as external partnerships with landlords, property managers, and non-governmental organizations with interests in community building.
  • Facilitate access to external resources, toolkits, and expertise on community building.

Learn more

Land acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge that the learnings represented in this guide were gleaned from HNC partners working in numerous unceded, traditional and ancestral territories, including those of the following peoples: Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish), səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) qʼʷa:n̓ƛʼən̓ (Kwantlen), q̓ic̓əy̓ (Katzie), kʷikʷəƛ̓əm (Kwikwetlem), sɛmiˈɑːmu (Semiahmoo), Qayqayt, sc̓əwaθən məsteyəxʷ (Tsawwassen), Syilx (Okanagan), and Lək̓ʷəŋən (Esquimalt and Songhees.)

Hey Neighbour Collective (HNC) recognizes that colonialism isolates Indigenous Peoples intentionally and by design, by, for example, prohibiting cultural practices, separating communities, and weakening family and language ties. HNC recognizes these historic and ongoing inequities and systemic barriers and strives to be part of movements to correct them.

Funders Acknowledgment

HNC’s work would not be possible without the support of our funders and sponsors from 2019 onwards. They are:

Practice guide 1 funder logos, including United Way, Real Estate Foundation, BC Housing, BCNPHA, Vancity, Landlord BC, McConnell, Mitacs, City of North Vancoouver, and more.